Sterling Bailey has a big smile that expands when you ask him about starting in UGA‚Äôs season opener against Clemson.
He perks up ‚Äî his back a little bit straighter, his voice a little more commanding.
It‚Äôll be the first time the soft-spoken defensive end has seen significant action in a football game since 2010 ‚Äî his senior year of high school.
And what‚Äôll be running through his head as he lines up in Death Valley on Aug. 31?
‚ÄúJesus, help me,‚Äù Bailey said with a laugh last week.
The East Hall product, who was ranked as the eighth defensive end nationally out of high school, has had an injury-laden career thus far at UGA, including a redshirt season as a freshman. He saw action in just three games last season after undergoing surgery on a torn labrum and a torn metatarsal ligament in March 2011 and January 2012, respectively.
His stat sheet is sparse ‚Äî just one tackle and one quarterback hurry.
But the 6-foot-3, 282-pound redshirt sophomore will have a chance to fill out that stat sheet, as he is listed as a starting defensive end opposite senior Garrison Smith.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm just still trying to work hard to keep it,‚Äù Bailey said of his starting spot.
Bailey earned the defense‚Äôs True Grit Award after spring practice concluded this year, and drew the praise of and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and defensive line Chris Wilson, who Bailey said he enjoys working with.
He has also dropped 13 pounds from the start of spring practice to the start of preseason camp, down from 295.
Bailey said he met with Georgia‚Äôs nutrition team to help him get into better playing shape, which is still a work in progress.
He is trying knock off three years of rust, and help build a reputation for an unproven Georgia defensive line that lost starters and significant contributors ‚Äî John Jenkins, Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers ‚Äî to graduation and the NFL after last season.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs made big steps,‚Äù Smith said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs still got to get into game shape because he hasn‚Äôt played in like three years. He‚Äôs just coming around.‚Äù
A part of that ‚Äúcoming around‚Äù process has been incorporating his hands more into his pass rush, which Bailey said is one of his biggest strengths, and coming off the ball faster and more aggressively.
‚ÄúI still work on that just because if I focus on one thing too much, I could lose a little bit of what I already have,‚Äù Bailey said. ‚ÄúI just work on every little thing.‚Äù
With the injury hurdles he‚Äôs had to leap and such a gap in his time as a starter, Bailey, who turns 21 next month, has turned to his parents for encouragement and lessons in practicing patience.
‚ÄúAlways sending me Bible verses, always telling me, ‚ÄòYou worked hard to get to this point. Just keep working harder. Don‚Äôt let it slip away,‚Äô ‚Äú Bailey said.
Laura and Kevin Bailey will make the drive from Gainesville to Clemson to watch their son start for the first time in nearly three years.
And their son‚Äôs smile will likely been easy to spot through his face mask.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs excited because once you haven‚Äôt played in so long, it‚Äôs just exciting when you finally get back out there,‚Äù Smith said.